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To the Rescue

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To The Rescue

 

Saving farmland, reviving a downtown, protecting the Shawangunks, and offering an antidote to the fast life  ¡ª four ways people are working to preserve the Valley¡¯s unique character 

 

By Rita Ross

 

Farmland Forever

 

Indian Ladder Farms is an inspiring example of how private and public groups are uniting to preserve endangered land.

 

     Now primarily a fruit orchard, the 367-acre farm in Altamont, Albany County, has been in the Ten Eyck family for four generations. Like many family farms, it¡¯s been hit over the years by soaring operating costs and increased pressure from developers eager to buy the land. Al­though agriculture is still big business in New York (generating at least $3 billion annually), more than 500,000 acres have been lost to development since 1992.

 

¡°There once were 52 commercial fruit orchards in Albany County. Now there are only two,¡± says Laurie Ten Eyck, Indian Ladder¡¯s vice president and retail manager. (The other functioning fruit farm recently added an 18-hole golf course on 150 of its 500 acres to help offset expenses.)

 

¡°My great-grandfather started Indian Ladder as a dairy farm back in 1915,¡± adds Ten Eyck. ¡°He had an award-winning herd of Guernsey cows and delivered milk door-to-door.¡± In the 1940s the dairy barn burned, and eventually the family switched its focus to apples and pears.

 

Today the farm is owned by Laurie¡¯s father, Peter G. Ten Eyck III. In addition to extensive orchards, it includes woods and environmentally significant wetlands, and offers beautiful views of the nearby Helderberg Escarpment. The family currently cultivates about 100 acres, producing more than 30 varieties of apples, as well as pears, blueberries, raspberries, pumpkins, corn, squash, vegetables, and hay. For decades, the farm has been a destination for visitors to pick apples, see baby farm animals, buy fresh vegetables, and choose their Halloween pumpkins.

 

And now, thanks to a collaboration between the Ten Eycks and environmental groups, Indian Ladder Farms has received a state farmland protection grant of more than $600,000 to preserve the property forever. The family can breathe easier knowing that their land will remain pristine and undeveloped.

 

Laurie Ten Eyck explains how it happened: ¡°We knew that various groups can help preserve farmland, and we learned that a nearby organization, the Albany County Land Conservancy, was interested in preserving the wetlands on our farm.¡± The family joined forces with the conservancy, a nonprofit group launched in 1992 by residents eager to protect natural, cultural, and scenic areas around the county. They were joined in their three-year project to save Indian Ladder Farms by the Open Space Institute, another nonprofit dedicated to protecting the state¡¯s scenic heritage.

 

Together, the two preservation groups generated the funding required to match the state grant. (The Open Space Institute donated $100,000; the rest was raised through donations from individuals and foundations.) The money was used to purchase a conservation easement ¡ª a legal agreement between the Ten Eycks and the two organizations restricting future development on the farm. Easements allow individuals to protect their land from unwanted development while continuing to retain private ownership and the right to pass the property on to their heirs. In the case of Indian Ladder Farms, the land must always be used for agricultural purposes, even if it changes hands. It was the first farm in Albany County to receive a state agricultural protection grant.

 

¡°There was so much paperwork,¡± Laurie Ten Eyck recalls. ¡°We filled out an enormous application. Three-quarters of the funds came from the state, but we had to raise the rest locally. It became a grassroots project. We created fund-raisers, did mailings, held a music festival and a gala at the farm. School classes raised money, and we had a little donation jar on the counter of our farm store. People gave amounts ranging from a couple of dollars to a couple of thousand dollars.¡± The money was in place ¡ª and the easement became official ¡ª in May 2003.

 

Ten Eyck says that the fund-raising efforts also raised residents¡¯ awareness about land preservation. ¡°It helped people understand that the public can play a big role in saving farmland and the open space that they love in their community. If they buy locally grown fruits and vegetables and help keep farms operating profitably, the farmers will be less vulnerable to selling when real estate developers come knocking at their door.

 

¡°Our major goal has been to preserve the land in perpetuity. Who knows what will happen down the road? The farm may change hands some day if our kids don¡¯t want to continue with it. But at least we know it will always be here in some form or another.

¡°In a way,¡± Ten Eyck concludes, ¡°we don¡¯t feel like the farm only belongs to us. Thousands of people come here every year, and we hope they feel like the orchards belong to them, too.¡±

 

Downtown Revival

 

One of the biggest preservation and renovation projects in the Valley is taking place not in the woods or fields, but in downtown White Plains. In the former shell of an empty department store, an enormous complex consisting of stores, an entertainment center, and luxury apartment buildings known as City Center at White Plains is springing up.

 

The $320 million project, built by Cappelli Enterprises, based in Valhalla (also in Westchester), is a block long and more than a million square feet in size. It¡¯s been hailed by many as the catalyst for the revitalization of downtown White Plains, much of which had become bleak and empty as residents and businesses were lost to the suburbs and malls.

 

¡°The core of the project is a former Macy¡¯s department store that had been sitting empty and unused for years,¡± explains Bruce Berg, executive vice president of Cappelli Enterprises. ¡°We used the site, which is about 7.5 acres in size, as the jumping-off point for renovation and construction that has changed the entire face of downtown White Plains.¡±

 

The complex, located in the heart of the city, is bordered by Mamaroneck and Martine Avenues and Main Street. Ribbon cutting for the first phase took place in October 2003, with anchor stores including Target and Circuit City. Since then, City Center has continued to grow in stages, which so far have included the launch of a 15-screen cinema ¡ª the first movie theater in White Plains in decades ¡ª several restaurants, a bank, and a bookstore. Future tenants will include a health club and a day spa. As any builder knows, parking can be a major issue, especially in an urban environment, so City Center provides more than 2,300 spaces in a huge, $40 million garage.

 

And a lot of locals, plus visitors from throughout the region, are indeed using those parking spaces, both to shop and to visit City Center for food, movies, and events at the brand new White Plains Performing Arts Center. The $3.5 million, 417-seat state-of-the-art facility is the only one of its kind in White Plains devoted to live performances.

 

¡°The Performing Arts Center was created to promote the arts and serve as a cultural focal point for the community,¡± says Berg. Comedian Bob Newhart headlined entertainment at the opening; other events have included a musical celebration of the life of jazz great Louis Armstrong and a stage show starring veteran performers Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna.

 

Unlike most projects of its type, City Center is more than just a spot for shopping or entertainment. It¡¯s also a place to live. Adjoining the complex in a soaring tower, 311 luxury apartments opened last May, with two more towers planned. One of them ¡ª Trump Tower at City Center ¡ª will contain more than 200 condominiums offering spectacular views stretching from Long Island Sound to Manhattan. It will be ready for occupancy by next summer. The other, an 11-story structure with large, open living spaces patterned after Soho-style lofts, is scheduled to open this month.

 

¡°People love the City Center location because it¡¯s right downtown,¡± adds Berg. ¡°It¡¯s also one of the few new apartment buildings to be built in White Plains in years. And it¡¯s just a few blocks from the Metro-North train station, which allows people to live here and still have an easy 45-minute commute into Manhattan.¡± New residents certainly don¡¯t have to worry about traveling far to eat: the City Center project has spurred a host of new restaurants ¡ª including Morton¡¯s Steakhouse and Todai, an upscale Japanese eatery ¡ª to open throughout the downtown.

 

Many improvements have also taken place outdoors. ¡°We didn¡¯t just stop with the interior, because the outdoor area is a major part of the downtown neighborhood,¡± says Berg. The renovation includes the new $4.5 million outdoor Renaissance Plaza adjacent to City Center. Here, 75 jets in an elaborate system of fountains shoot plumes of water 15 feet into the air; at lunchtime and in the evening, it offers ¡°dancing water¡± shows (with colored lights and synchronized music). That¡¯s not the only open space on the downtown horizon: an open-air Starbucks nearby has pledged a portion of its profits to help create more parks in the city.

 

So even if shopping or Broadway-style entertainment isn¡¯t your cup of tea ¡ª or coffee ¡ª you can still tote a snack to the Plaza and enjoy a revitalized White Plains.

 

Gathering in the Gunks

 

While efforts to preserve Indian Ladder Farms ended successfully, another grassroots group is passionately committed to saving from development a large and ecologically important area of Ulster County. The region at stake is a 2,600-acre parcel on the Shawangunk Ridge, part of the spectacular Shawangunk Mountains, affectionately referred to by climbers and hikers as the Gunks. Designated as ¡°One of Earth¡¯s Last Great Places¡± by the Nature Conservancy, it includes Minnewaska State Park Preserve, the Mohonk Preserve, and Sam¡¯s Point Preserve, which together draw thousands of visitors from around the world each year. A region of unspoiled beauty, the ridge supports a biodiversity of rare plants and animals; it¡¯s also one of the few places left in the mid-Hudson Valley where one can enjoy sweeping vistas of greenery virtually unpunctuated by buildings.

 

But local landowner John Bradley proposes to build nearly 350 upscale houses and an 18-hole golf course in an area he calls the Awosting Reserve, along the southeast slope of the Ridge. His an­nouncement has thrust the ¡°green versus growth¡± issue to the forefront for many residents of the nearby towns of Gardiner and Shawangunk, as well as fans of the Gunks who flock to the area to enjoy hiking, rock climbing, and other activities.

 

While Bradley¡¯s Web site declares that the planned project will be a ¡°conservation-based community, dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of its unique natural and scenic resources,¡± many members of the local community are vehement that the Shawangunk Ridge should be preserved in its natural state. To that end, an informal group, Save The Ridge, has sprung up as both a forum for information and a focal point for local citizens who want to express their feelings about this emotional issue through action.

 

¡°We¡¯re not a membership organization. Everyone is a volunteer,¡± explains Patty Lee Parmalee, coordinator of Save The Ridge, who lives on the Gardiner/Shawangunk border. Two years ago, when various rumors began to spring up about the proposed development, the beginnings of community opposition likewise popped up like wildflowers.

 

¡°It started kind of spontaneously,¡± recalls Parmalee, a teacher and writer. ¡°In December of 2002, some residents took the first step by printing leaflets inviting everyone to a meeting to learn about the issue.¡± As plans for the development grew, so did public activism. People began knocking on doors to inform their neighbors. More than 1,000 ¡°Save the Ridge¡± lawn signs and bumper stickers were printed. A 15-member coordinating committee, and various research and organizing subcommittees, were launched. Petitions were signed, yard sales held, T-shirts and mugs sold. A Web site designer donated her time to create www.savetheridge.com. A local filmmaker has been documenting the process of how this Hudson Valley community has come together for a common cause.

 

¡°It¡¯s been remarkable to see ¡ª people of all ages and political backgrounds uniting and interacting,¡± says Parmalee. She adds that while Save the Ridge events and protests sometimes make the news, there is plenty of behind-the-scenes activism, too. Much of the time donated by committee members is spent attending town board, zoning, and other routine meetings; writing letters to officials; studying piles of legal and environmental documents; and keeping abreast of decidedly unglamorous topics such as the status of the developer¡¯s proposed sewer plans.

 

The Save the Ridge folks aren¡¯t alone in their efforts. Other groups ¡ª such as the Shawangunk Ridge Coalition, the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference, Riverkeeper, the Open Space Institute, the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, the Mohonk Preserve, and Friends of the Shawangunks ¡ª offer them guidance and support.

 

¡°One of the alternatives we¡¯re presenting is that the Open Space Institute purchase the land from the developer and turn it over to the state for preservation as part of the Minnewaska State Park Preserve,¡± Parmalee says. ¡°This way the land would not go off the tax rolls, and the developer can still make money and wouldn¡¯t lose out.

 

¡°We¡¯re by no means the only community going through something like this,¡± she adds. ¡°No matter what the ultimate outcome, this has certainly been a testament to the power of civic unity. But we¡¯re determined not to let this development happen, and fortunately the state environmental review laws are written so there¡¯s a lot of opportunity for public comment.¡±

 

Since the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly ¡ª and a final decision on the development won¡¯t be made for some time ¡ª Parmalee says some residents think the matter already has been resolved because weeks, and sometimes months, pass without any major news.

 

In the meantime, nature keeps going through its cycles in the Shawangunks as the preservationists continue their efforts. Or to quote the Save The Ridge Web site: ¡°It ain¡¯t over till the timber rattlesnake and the peregrine falcon sing.¡±

 

Thinking Locally

 

Not all forms of preservation in the Valley involve saving land or buildings. One group, known as Slow Food Hudson Valley, is dedicated to the concept of reshaping our daily lives by changing the way we eat.

 

In our modern world of grab-and-go meals, the Slow Food movement is gently creating a renaissance of culinary quality and simplicity. It promotes the once-common daily practices of buying fresh food and opting for home-cooked meals ¡ª choices that take the time to salute nature¡¯s bounty.

 

The movement started in Italy in 1986 when journalist Carlo Petrini became dismayed that a McDonald¡¯s had opened in Rome. Rather than stage a protest, he wrote articles about the importance of preserving local food culture. People around the world responded: the movement currently boasts more than 65,000 members in 45 countries.

Slow Food Hudson Valley is part of this informal worldwide network of citizens eager to bring people back to the table to savor the flavors of ¡°real¡± food, good conversation, and enjoyable company while dining. ¡°Slow Food has developed not only as a response to fast food, but to fast life in general ¡ª which threatens our environment, our landscape, and our rhythm of life,¡± explains Gayil Greene, leader of the local chapter (known as a ¡°convivium,¡± a derivation of the word ¡°convivial¡±). Or as described by its parent group, Slow Food USA, its basic mission is to counteract ¡°the universal folly of Fast Life.¡±

 

The Hudson Valley group started two years ago after Greene read about Slow Food in a magazine. She learned that there were no local chapters anywhere between Manhattan and the Finger Lakes. ¡°I contacted some people who I thought would be interested in the philosophy of the movement,¡± she recalls. ¡°It seemed to me that the Hudson Valley ¡ª rich in a cultural and culinary heritage and struggling to keep farming alive ¡ª was a perfect location for a Slow Food chapter.¡±

 

Ten people signed on as charter members; the convivium has since grown to about 70 regular participants. They attend quarterly meetings, sometimes hosted at a member¡¯s home, other times at restaurants where the chef or owner is part of the movement. Members come from Ulster, Dutchess, Greene, Orange, and Rockland counties and share a common love of the food, culture, and beauty of the Hudson Valley.

 

¡°We sponsor food-related events to encourage the community to support local restaurants, farms, wineries, farmers¡¯ markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, and other related activities,¡± says Greene, who also promotes sustainable agriculture and family farms through the Phillies Bridge Farm Project in New Paltz.

Last spring, Slow Food Hudson Valley presented cooking classes with visiting chefs from Italy; co-sponsored a two-day workshop on building a sustainable greenhouse; and held their second annual farmer/chef dinner, which offers a chance for the two to meet informally over a meal. ¡°The farmers let the chefs know what they are growing; the chefs let the farmers know what they are interested in cooking,¡± explains Greene.

 

¡°Totally Fermented¡± was another unique Slow Food event held at Sprout Creek Farm in Poughkeepsie. A celebration of fermented foods of all kinds ¡ª including bread, cheese, coffee, chocolate, yogurt, miso, and pickles ¡ª it included tastings and a chance to meet local producers of the various edibles. The group  has sponsored a day of harvesting fresh produce from a member¡¯s garden which was then donated to a local food pantry. They also have a Web site, www.hudsonvalleyslowfood.org.

 

The Slow Food mentality tends to sneak into one¡¯s life in other ways, Greene says. ¡°A lot of it is about sharing with others. Everything from sharing a meal to sharing the flowers or vegetables you grow in your garden with neighbors.¡± It¡¯s also about tradition: asking grandparents for their favorite recipes, listening to friends¡¯ stories around the dinner table, or learning about
cultural diversity during a discussion with other Slow Food members.

 

Community building is an important aspect, too. ¡°We all know how wonderful and healthy fresh food tastes when it comes from your local farmer or baker,¡± Greene says. ¡°But we¡¯re also helping to sustain these small local businesses when we financially support them.¡±

 

¡°Food has become a political act,¡± Greene asserts. ¡°Where do you purchase your food? Do you buy organic? Do you buy local? What restaurants do you choose ¡ª fast-food or home-cooked? Chains or independently owned? You can buy as much as possible from farm stands, farmers¡¯ markets, and join CSAs. Ask your grocers to carry local products. It¡¯s good for the local economy, and supporting farmers also keeps the landscape green.

 

¡°If we want our landscapes to include scenic open spaces, not suburban sprawl, it¡¯s the farmer who will bear responsibility for keeping the land in use and not selling out to developers. But the farmer or grower or vintner can only do this if agriculture is sustainable. As lovers of this beautiful Hudson Valley, it is our role as consumers to see that we keep agriculture alive. Buy fresh, seasonal food, and bring your family and friends back to the table!¡± ¡ö

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